Electric power and distribution lines, conductors and failed power poles owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Corporation ignited a dozen of the wind-blasted firestorms that raged in October 2017 in the Wine Country region, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has announced.
More than 170 fires blew up in early October in Northern California. They burned more than 245,000 acres, destroyed nearly 6,200 homes and killed at least 44 people.
Cal Fire investigators have determined PG&E bears responsibility for causing October 2017 fires in Mendocino, Humboldt, Butte, Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties, the state agency announced Friday. Their findings have been referred to the appropriate county prosecutors for review in eight of the 12 fires due to evidence of alleged violations of state law.
The state agency has not released an official cause for the Tubbs Fire that raced into Santa Rosa. It resulted in 22 fatalities, making it the deadliest blaze in October and it was one of the deadliest in state history. The Tubbs Fire also destroyed more than 5,600 structures.
In November, more than 100 people were suing Pacific Gas & Electric and claiming the utility giant was negligent and that poor maintenance of its high-voltage power lines caused the October fires in Sonoma County.
“We look forward to the opportunity to carefully review the Cal Fire reports to understand the agency's perspectives,” PG&E external communications staff said of the Cal Fire investigations in a statement issued Friday. “Based on the information we have so far, we continue to believe our overall programs met our state's high standards.”
When PG&E gets blamed for starting massive, destructive, deadly megablazes — like the 2015 Butte Fire in Calaveras County — the costs to the utility are enormous.
“The Utility currently believes that it is probable that it will incur a loss of at least $1.1 billion in connection with the Butte Fire,” PG&E administrators said in an 82-page quarterly report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission dated May 3.
The report is signed by PG&E executives Jason P. Wells, senior vice president and chief financial officer, and David S. Thomason, vice president, chief financial officer and controller. It contains the following footnote: “As of March 31, 2018, the Utility entered into settlement agreements in connection with the Butte Fire corresponding to approximately $734 million, of which $657 million has been paid by the Utility.”
Asked Monday how much of the settlement costs were passed along to PG&E customers, PG&E staff did not answer the question. Brandi Merlo with PG&E marketing and communications sent a statement that began with words the utility first put out in April 2016, when Cal Fire blamed PG&E for causing the Butte Fire.
“First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the victims and the communities who suffered losses as a result of the Butte Fire,” the statement Merlo issued Monday began.
“We continue to believe that inverse condemnation, as applied to a privately owned utility, is flawed legal doctrine,” the PG&E statement continued. “We have shared our view on the applicability of this legal doctrine with the court in our January 2018 filing and again just a few weeks ago. We believe it is in everyone's interest to have this issue decided promptly.”
State plans to update liability rules
In March, in the wake of devastating floods, fires, mudslides and other extreme weather in 2017, state leaders — including Gov. Jerry Brown Jr., Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Senate Republican Leader Patricia Bates and Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle — said they were “partnering on solutions” this year to make California more resilient against natural disasters and climate change.
One of the proposed solutions the politicians listed is “Update liability rules and regulations for utility services in light of changing climate and the increased severity and frequency of weather events.”
Since September 2017, the price of publicly traded Pacific Gas and Electric Co. stock has fallen 44 percent, from more than $71.50 a share to less than $40.
The Butte Fire broke out Sept. 9, 2015, when a gray pine contacted a PG&E overhead conductor at 17704 Butte Mountain Road near Charamuga Ranch in Amador County and caused ignition that started the fire, a California Public Utilities Commission investigation determined.
The Butte Fire burned more than 110 square miles of watersheds, destroyed 921 structures that included 549 homes, and killed two residents who declined to evacuate. It was declared contained Oct. 1, 2015.
In February this year, the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to authorize suing the utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric for its role in causing the Butte Fire.
The PG&E statement issued Friday also said, “The safety of our customers, their families and the communities we serve is our most important job. The loss of life, homes and businesses in these extraordinary wildfires is simply heartbreaking, and we remain focused on helping communities recover and rebuild.”
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.